by: Rachael Chong
Proximity Designs is a for-profit design company whose goal is to create products cheap enough–and good enough–that they can be bought by poor farmers, instead of just giving them aid.
Proximity Designs–led by Debbie Aung Din and Jim Taylor–works to reduce poverty and advance the well-being of rural families in Myanmar, where they’ve worked since 2004. They design, produce, and distribute products, like their foot-operated irrigation pump, that are affordable for low-income farmers and help to increase their income and productivity. To date, they’ve sold more than 110,000 items to Burmese farmers, using a model of designing and producing tools that are affordable to those making less than $2 a day.
How did you decide to select a business model in which you treat the poor as customers rather than recipients of charity? And do you believe this to be a faster way out of generational poverty?
Giving things away is hard to do on a large and sustainable scale. Selling products allows us to scale much faster. People who are trying to survive can’t afford to wait for traditional giveaway programs that may or may not find their village. Selling our income-boosting products at prices villagers can pay allows us to invest in and grow a sustainable distribution network that gives rural people access to even more products and services.
When we treat people as customers–not as recipients of charity–they have the ultimate power and choice to decide whether they want to buy what we’re offering. As a social enterprise, we don’t decide what people should get. It’s up to them to decide.
So much of the aid industry is based on patronage relationships. We wanted to have a different kind of relationship with the people we are serving. It’s a more transparent relationship, one of mutual exchange and respect. It is less patronizing to treat people as customers than to treat them as “charity recipients.”
If we give things away, we will not really know whether people value what we provide. When we sell our products at a price poor families can afford, we get immediate feedback signals daily from people who have spent their hard-earned money. If we design products that don’t increase incomes or that are not affordable, people will simply not buy them.
People who pay or work for things tend to be more invested in them. If people receive things as outright charity, they will not feel a sense of ownership. For example, foot pumps that were given away have shown a high rate of abandonment. Our foot pumps and other products bought by users are almost never abandoned.
It can be socially divisive to give something away to a few selected households in a village and exclude the other households. Similarly, it’s not fair to select a few villages to get assistance and withhold it from thousands of other villages. When we sell products through the broader market, we make them as accessible as possible nationwide, using private sector channels. Everyone has an opportunity to access our products.
Why was the foot-treadle pump successful? What’s next for Proximity?
We didn’t invent the treadle pump but our product designers have made some pretty impressive design innovations, like replacing plastic molded parts for metal ones, making it super low cost and much easier to install and use.
The foot-operated irrigation pump is successful because it provides small-plot farm families with an extremely affordable solution to their daily problem of drudgery–hauling water to their crops. (It was like going from doing six to eight hours a day of back-breaking work hauling water to two hours instead on a “stairmaster.”) With improved efficiency in daily irrigation, farm families could then spend time expanding their plots, growing more diverse and high-value crops, extending their growing season or spending time marketing their produce and getting better prices–all of these add up to dramatic boosts in household incomes of $200 to $300 per season. The extra income allows them to feed their family, buy school supplies, keep their children in school, and buy inputs for the next crop without going into debt.
We’ve created an innovative line of irrigation products including four models of foot-operated treadle pumps, 250-gallon water storage tanks for farms and gravity-fed drip irrigation systems. The irrigation products range from $15 to $50 in price. Since 2004, farm households have purchased over 130,000 irrigation products.
Several years ago we began moving into several other underserved rural markets in Myanmar. We now sell a line of renewable energy products, designed for rural homes. Our newest offering is financial services designed for the millions of smallholder farms in Myanmar.
How did your approach to design help you reach so many people affected by Cyclone Nargis?
We’d never seen the disaster relief industry up close before, but we were on the ground and our customers were in dire need after the cyclone hit. We knew a lot about rural families and about delivery to remote villages. So right away we started with some basic “need finding” as designers would do and asked, “What does the cyclone survivor want?” Survivors were farm families who had lost their harvested crops, rice seeds for the next season, their draft animals, and had no means to replant for the future. We found the following four things were important to survivors:
1. Timeliness of delivery: Many donors and aid agencies paid little attention to farmers’ deadlines and instead operated on their own agency timelines. As a result, few agencies were able to help with farm recovery work and instead focused on shelter, water, and sanitation. We ended up being the group that helped the largest number of farm households to replant in the very first season weeks after the cyclone hit. We delivered fertilizer, tilling equipment, rice seed, and helped 58,000 farm households to replant.
2. Fairness in distribution: Everyone in the village or cluster of villages had been hit by the cyclone so it was foolish to try to do “wealth ranking” of people, as we saw many aid agencies doing in a formulaic way. In fact, villagers complained that this kind of process was divisive and they didn’t want it. In delivering supplies, we went for universal coverage of the village households or the cluster of villages. It was faster and everyone felt it was fair.
3. Transparency: Cyclone survivors needed information and knew what they could expect from us. We distributed “transparency flyers” that contained relevant information on supplies being delivered, included hotline numbers and contact persons to send suggestions, feedback, and complaints.
4. People wanted to be treated with dignity: We designed a process whereby survivors were listed and called up by name to receive their supplies. We made sure no one was left out. These details were very important to survivors.
Can you describe your collaborative process as a husband and wife design team?
This is the first time we’ve worked as a husband and wife team (except for a brief period in post-war Cambodia when we shared the leadership job). Our skills and experiences seem to have converged to form a solid combination for this social enterprise design work in Myanmar.
We both have a background and training in development economics, so we understand the big picture of poverty. Jim has training (an MBA) in management and experience in private sector management with both large companies and technology startups. Being a native of the country, Debbie is able to bridge two cultures. We both are interested in design and especially innovation. We’re not risk-averse and are drawn to work in difficult places. In a startup, you end up doing a bit of everything and we shared leadership roles. As our company has grown we continue to collaborate closely even though our respective responsibilities have evolved to be a bit more specialized. We’re not afraid to disagree, but fundamentally we share the same values and this makes our collaboration work.
When did you realize your career would be focused on giving back?
We’re not designers by training. We’ve come to embrace some of the key design disciplines while facing some really difficult challenges. We haven’t really seen the trajectory of our careers as a period of taking and now giving back. We were both fortunate to have access to good educations and supportive families. We’re motivated to help in situations where the stakes are high and the problems are big–where we know our unique skills can make a positive difference.
Throughout our careers we’ve been compelled to work in challenging situations where our skills could be best put to use; the Mississippi delta, post–Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Indonesia, and now Myanmar for the past nine years.
Who inspires you the most with their generosity?
Debbie and I met in Mississippi. Fresh out of college in the late ‘70s, we each decided to move to Jackson to work with a social entrepreneur named John Perkins. John was a successful businessman who moved back to his native Mississippi. He started social ventures to tackle poverty in America’s poorest state. Our seven years in Mississippi was a shaping experience as 20-year-olds. John taught us something that has become an enduring theme in our lives. He said if you want to understand more clearly the real problems facing poor people, you have to relocate and be close to them, so you can begin to look for real solutions. You need deep knowledge and empathy if you want to be any good at solving complex problems.
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